“… In constant sorrow, all through his days….” Now, if that passage sounds familiar to you, you will probably like David Johnson’s deep and solid book on The Stanley Brothers. For that chorus is from a recording of the song “Man of Constant Sorrow,” originally done by Ralph Stanley in 1951 and the composition (which is much older) was likely the star of a comedy from 2000 named “O Brother where art thou.”
However, there is just a handful of very influential bluegrass musicians from the 1940s and they all come from somewhere in the Appalachians. This large mountain region, belonging in parts to Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky, was once a very important point for the exploration and cultivation of the continent. The people who settled there several generations ago fought harsh living conditions, poverty and stony grounds; and still built their farms and managed to survive on farming or cutting lumber, somehow.
They were hard-working and spiritual people, so singing hymns (in churches, mostly bare of any instrument) was a natural part of life. Profane music was produced on the spot, for until the 1940s, there was no electricity in the region. One reason for the large communities of musicians was that almost anybody in those remote parts of the country played at least one (portable) instrument. The instruments in use back then – guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle – still today constitute the core of any bluegrass outfit.
It is because of this aspect of American culture that this region was once so important since this is where bluegrass music began and is active still today. This region also produced two of the most brilliant bluegrass musicians who are the subject of Johnson’s book. The Stanley brothers Carter (guitar) and Ralph (banjo) from Virginia set standards for bluegrass music worldwide with their impeccable harmony singing and rich arrangements. They also made popular numerous songs, among them “Little Bessie” and “Man of constant Sorrow,” featured prominently in the movie “O Brother where art thou.”
Until Carter’s untimely death in 1966, the brothers recorded dozens of albums and played thousands of concerts and radio performances. Together with Bill Monroe and the duo Flat/Scruggs they became the leading bluegrass outfit in the US. With their band “The Clinch Mountain Boys” they set standards in American music; first by recording old Baptist hymns, and later by writing many bluegrass and country music classics, always making use of their particular melodic harmony singing.
Johnson wrote a detailed history of this classic bluegrass duo and conducted numberless interviews with people like Larry Sparks, Lester Woodie, George Shuffler, and Wade Mainer. Furthermore, Johnson could use interviews done by (legendary folklorist and musician) Mike Seeger (RIP 2009) from 1966.
Since a bluegrass success story cannot be told in interviews and by collecting data alone, the reader also gets to learn a lot about the bluegrass recording industry, radio marketing, life in the Appalachian region (particularly in Tennessee and Virginia), cultural heritage and the roots of bluegrass in hymns and old-time country music.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2015
David W. Johnson. Lonesome Melodies: The Lives and Music of the Stanley Brothers. University of Mississippi Press, 2014, 304 p.